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Donald Trump Isn't Stopping This Pakistani Muslim Immigrant From Having Hope

I'm going to stay, even if it means living in a country that has effectively voted for me to leave.

19/01/2017 22:13 SAST | Updated 19/01/2017 22:14 SAST
Courtesy of Mahira Tiwana
Mahira Tiwana, right, and her friend Sarina Shrestha visit Washington, D.C. during their first year in the U.S.

As Inauguration Day looms, a million thoughts are running through my head. How could the America I had come to love, to feel accepted in, be about to swear in a leader who resented me for my residency status, my religion and even my gender? And what would it mean for me, a Pakistani Muslim immigrant whose visa is up for renewal in the summer of 2017, to be living in Trump’s America, side by side with people who seemingly don’t want me here and who now have a leader in power who appears to share that opinion?

Your guess is as good as mine.

Like many other immigrants from high risk, “terror prone” areas, those of us here that have to apply for new visas after years on F1 student visas, are in limbo, left in suspense about where our immigration status will stand under the soon-to-be President Donald Trump. We are at the mercy of his unpredictability, wondering if he will follow through on his promises and weed out those of us who don’t “belong” here.

We are at the mercy of [Donald Trump's] unpredictability, wondering if he will follow through on his promises and weed out those of us who don’t 'belong' here.

Over the course of his campaign, Trump made several different statements saying that people like me ― people who come from Muslim-majority nations ― will no longer be allowed to immigrate into the country. During the presidential cycle, we were forced to laugh it off and hope that maybe this man would not end up having control over the system that determined the direction of the rest of our lives. But now that the day to hand over power is nearly here, we can’t help but worry what decision he will actually make once he gets into office.

Will we merely be harassed as we apply to stay in this country, or will we be completely denied residency status and lose the careers and lives we have worked so hard to build?

What makes the eve of inauguration harder still is coming to terms with how we, I, got here, because the very election of Donald Trump has shattered my perception of America and my place in it. 

Courtesy of Mahira Tiwana
Mahira and her siblings stand on the Karakoram Highway in northern Pakistan while on their way to the Pakistan-China border during a family trip in 2005.

As a child living in Lahore, Pakistan, the reality of U.S tensions with the Middle East seemed distant. But as an adult, the realization that I sit in the U.S., the idea that my fate is now being influenced by a conflict I never knew I was involved in, in a nation that crippled my own in many ways and gave my religion the bad name it never deserved, seems to be one of the greatest ironies of my life.

Pakistani children are raised to view moving to the United States as the end goal. And as a result, many of us end up here for our college educations. We come to the U.S. as young college students, expecting only the best of everything. The best facilities, resources, universities, people and students.

The realization that my fate is now being influenced by a conflict I never knew I was involved in, in a nation that crippled my own in many ways and gave my religion the bad name it never deserved, seems to be one of the greatest ironies of my life.

I came to America in the fall of 2012. Back then, all those promises seemed real. On the eve of Obama’s re-election, I had been in the country for three months, and it was a magical time to be at a liberal arts college. It gave a newcomer the impression of a progressive, transformed America on its way to great things; it gave me the hope of the upward mobility I had always been told would come of leaving my family and friends behind in Pakistan for this education.

The 2016 election season was the first year I lived in the U.S. post-college. I had spent the months leading up to graduation convincing my family that staying in the U.S. was the best option for me, that there was no reason for me to return to Pakistan and live at home. Here, I had told them, I would be in a better position to attain the future I desired.

But the closer we got to Trump’s inauguration, the more I realized that those feelings were the assumptions of a sheltered experience, even as an immigrant. After seeing the promise Obama represented, Trump’s political ascension was a rude awakener. 

Courtesy of Mahira Tiwana
Mahira and her family gather outside their home in Lahore, Pakistan, during Mahira's winter break from university in 2014.

The election results reiterated in bold letters, that in case I had ever considered adopting such an identity, I am not and cannot be American, despite being a product of its education and social system. As an immigrant in purgatory, neither here nor there, I found myself suddenly unable to move forward.

And so, I began to look back. The reality of my present had me navigating an all-too-familiar battle between sentiment and logic I had put on mute long ago. To return to Pakistan? Or stay?

If I stay, how do I live in a country that has effectively voted for me to leave?

Their message is irrevocably clear: Your Islam is not welcome. Your skin color is not welcome. Your dark features and your dark green passport will taint you here as long as you have them.

But maybe I should ignore it and stay. For my future. I reasoned with myself.

But where was I really?

The election results reiterated in bold letters, that in case I had ever considered adopting such an identity, I am not and cannot be American.

In many ways, it felt like I had regressed. I was in a culture that stood in complete dismissal of the religious and racial parts of my ethnic background while actively fetishizing the food I ate and the clothes I wore.

It was a culture that removed Islam from all Muslim contributions to the world to make them more palatable ― from “mystic” Rumi poetry to the “world wonder” that is the Mughal Taj Mahal.

During the Obama years that defined my college experience, there had been times when people exhibited backwards perceptions of my country and my culture, when people had exoticized it. But it had never gotten to a point where it felt like my identity was a negative presence or something that should be rejected by those who were more American or more easily able to fit into the lifestyle here. But now, I couldn’t help but question the value of my desire to chase the “American dream.” Was it worth it when that dream seemed more and more like it was becoming a nightmare? 

Aamir Qureshi/ Getty Images
Pakistani day laborers rest by the side of the road as they wait for work in Islamabad on June 24, 2012. Rising unemployment and inflation together have increased hunger and poverty among the most vulnerable in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s declining political and economic situation leaves many young and capable people unable to find sustainable work. Instead of staying and contributing, they leave for greener pastures, in search of better opportunities. I had done the same.

Today, I’m not ready to give up on the “American dream” and go home just yet. And so, I find myself in a place where I can do nothing but wait.

In the wake of increased Islamophobia and threats to the place of Muslims and immigrants in the country, many of us are too afraid to leave for fear of being denied re-entry ― Hasan Minhaj even broke his typical jokey banter on the Daily Show to voice his concerns about his mother being allowed back into America post-Trump inauguration. And my immigration officer contacted me and other foreign employees, advising us to immediately apply for more secure visas and refrain from international travel.

I’m not ready to give up on the 'American dream' and go home just yet.

But it’s not been easy staying here, especially in the backdrop of a society that at least in part seems to reject what I stand for and challenge the America I have lived in and loved these past few years.

Staying meant that the year that I had not been home to Lahore was extended. Staying meant that, for me and other Pakistanis, Trump was our personal Grinch for the holiday season.

We missed the barrage of weddings that define this time of year, missed family reunions and the one time in the year we are able to return to our childhood comforts.

A close friend still feels betrayed that I will not be attending her graduation. Another is upset I did not dance at her wedding, the wedding we had planned together since we were little girls. And even missing my siblings’ school functions, functions that I would usually consider ridiculous (my 8-year-old sister is extremely proud at having finished fifth in the 100 meter race at school), feel like I am missing out on watching my family grow up. 

Carlo Allegri / Reuters
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump on the night of his election in Manhattan, New York.

I have already missed so much, and it seems with the threat of decreased mobility in a Trump administration, I am destined to miss much more. I fear the distance I already feel will solidify and lengthen on Inauguration Day, and it’s making me anxious. It is then that I will learn what fate awaits me in the summer when my student visa expires and when I want to go home for a family visit.

In terms of politics, the difference between the old and new POTUS will not be immediately felt. But with the kind of extreme, unstable remarks Donald Trump regularly issues, I am not positive the impact will be delayed for much longer.

For Pakistanis, seeing the great impenetrable nation in such visible distress induces mild amusement and perhaps a stirring of pity. We are not in the business of interfering, and so we will watch as Trump attempts to fill Obama’s well-worn shoes on Jan. 20 and every day thereafter with profound sadness for the loss of one of the best men to ever occupy the Oval Office. We will sit with a sense of foreboding for what is in store for America and its subjects, particularly those that bear our skin color and our religion.

While my American friends will joke and hope that they come out of the next four years with as few bruises as possible, I simply hope to survive.

And for me, the country will never be quite the same. I will walk around with a pit in my stomach as I try to make a life in a nation that has changed from a sanctuary to a place where I am constantly a suspect. And while my American friends will joke and hope that they come out of the next four years with as few bruises as possible, I simply hope to survive in the country that I hope to call home for as long as I can.

Trump may never see the dangers involved in making a scapegoat of a religious people or of minorities who have come here for a better life, and so we Muslims and immigrants must implore the average American to see past the blind hatred and the political propaganda. So on the eve of Inauguration Day, to those of you who are not in my situation, who may not be forcefully removed or under threat in Trump’s America, I want to reiterate that our presence in this nation relies on your humanity. This land of immigrants will soon have the very symbol of anti-immigrant rhetoric as its greatest representative, and we look to our American counterparts to rise to the occasion. I hope our faith is not misplaced.

The Huffington Post is documenting the rising wave of anti-Muslim bigotry and violence in America. Take a stand against hate.

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